She was dismissed as a light weight actress after her debut film Mirzya. Since then it’d been a long struggle to find a foothold in Bollywood. In the meanwhile, she did a few stray projects but to avail. Things seem to be looking up for this talented actress now. Her recently released Choked on OTT platform has put her under the spotlight. The industry has finally woken up to Saiyami Kher’s talent. Congratulatory messages have come flooding in. This has spurred the actress to work even harder. In blithe spirit, Saiyami talks about life after Choked. Read on:
What’s the best compliment you’ve received for Choked?
The response to Choked has been overwhelming. I want to thank everyone who has watched the film and liked my work. Javed Akhtar told me that there is nothing about Sarika that looks, talks or walks like me. He said it didn’t feel like Sarita knew anything about cricket, tennis or any other sport. A few people said there was something about my performance that reminded them of Smita Patil. That’s a huge compliment because I have always admired her work. Sachin Tendulkar posted on social media saying he liked my performance. So that felt surreal.
What made Anurag Kashyap believe you could play the working middle-class woman, Sarita Pillai?
Anurag (Kashyap) met me at Mami and that’s when he offered me the film. He felt that the image I had in public of being glamorous was not really me. He said that I was simple and that I should stay connected to my small town roots. I think that is what he was looking for in Sarita. For two years after he offered me the film, we didn’t start shooting. So I along with the writer of the film (Nihit Bhave) and the costume head of the series Sacred Games put together Sarita’s look. I asked a friend to take photos. When I showed Anurag the pictures, he was excited. He said the look test convinced him that I could look like Sarita.
What did Shabana Azmi say about your performance?
I was nervous about her response. But she called me right after watching the film and spoke for 40 minutes. She said she was pleasantly surprised and never thought I could pull off a role like this. She said that I got the sur of the character from the word go. She really liked my work but also said that credit must be given to Anurag for having the vision and the courage to cast me for a role like this.
You recently wrote on social media that the people who had dismissed you after Mirzya, called up to congratulate for Choked. How do you react to such people?
I’d actually written a long post for Anurag. In that I mentioned that people who’d dismissed me three years ago called to say they liked my work (Smiles). I was happy but Anurag was happier. Because he’d shown faith in me. I’m someone who doesn’t take appreciation or criticism too seriously. Because there will be ups and downs and one needs to take both with a pinch of salt. I just need to keep working on myself and get better than my last performance.
How traumatic was the failure of Mirzya? How did you move on from that phase?
Ups and downs are part of every profession. We need to learn to see the positives we can get from our failures. I had a good time while shooting for Mirzya. I learnt a lot. Also I had a lot of takeouts from the film. Rakeysh Sir (Om Prakash Mehra) and Gulzar Saab are people I got close to and continue to reach out to them even today. Unfortunately, I didn’t get offered many interesting roles post Mirzya. It’s taken three long years but I am grateful that Anurag sir backed me on this film. I kept myself busy with theatre workshops, working on voice modulation, running marathons and different sporting activities. Guess it taught me to become more patient and more hard-working.
You made your debut in 2016 and now after four years your second Hindi film, Choked is out. What made you wait for such a long time?
I didn’t want to wait! I was rearing to go but unfortunately I didn’t get offers. In this time I did a Marathi film Mauli with Riteish Deshmukh which was great fun. I also shot for Amazon’s Breathe 2 and Hotstar’s Special Ops (Smiles). While I was auditioning and waiting for something to work out.
Being Tanvi Azmi’s niece and late Ushaji’s granddaughter, how easy or difficult was it to make it here?
The funny thing is that not too many people know about my connection with the film world. The reason being my parents, who’d consciously moved to Nasik to bring up my sister and me in a smaller town. So even though my aunt is an actress and my grandmother was an actress, we grew up far away from the film world. My journey has been about standing in long queues at Aram Nagar to audition for work. Whatever work I have done has come because of auditions or my previous work. So yes it has surely not been easy. I really do hope it gets a little easy now.
You grew up on a farmhouse in Nasik and then there’s this high pressured life of showbiz…how do you merge the two lives?
I grew up in Nashik and did my schooling there. I moved to Mumbai 10 years ago. I am connected to my roots and make a trip to Nasik every month if I can. I have grown up swimming in lakes and going on treks. I still continue to do the same. I still have my school friends here who are my comfort zone and I am glad to have them.
You were seen recently on a tractor…that’s an interesting facet…what else interests you apart from films?
I love doing new things all the time. Travel, sport and adventure is something that keeps me excited. Before corona, I’d do a solo trip every year, be it backpacking in Hawai and learning how to surf or bicycling from Berlin to Prague and staying in hostels. I save my money so I can watch live sports. I spend money on going and watching Wimbledon every year or an NBA game. These things make me happy. I want to run marathons in different parts of the world. I was supposed to be in Netherlands doing an ironman on the 28th of June but everything has been paused. (chuckles) In the lockdown, I have been gardening and trying to learn magic tricks.
How do you deal with rumours like your proximity with Anurag Kashyap?
I haven’t heard too many of those yet, except a few people on social media. But rumours always amuse me. I don’t understand how people can talk so loosely about other people they know nothing about. My family and friends matter the most to me. What the world has to say makes no difference to me. Rumours should just be ignored. I do however wish that people start speaking more positive things rather than baseless gossip.
Mental health has become a big issue in our country today. What should actors keep in mind regarding success and failure?
One cannot take success or failure too seriously. Some things are bound to do well, while some won’t do well. Ups and downs are part of life. We need to keep working on ourselves and keep our focus on our purpose in life. If your reason to act was the love for acting, then one shouldn’t confuse it with fame, money or box office hits. Also success and mental health are separate topics. Mental health does not discriminate. Rich or poor, old or young. Money and fame don’t have anything to do with it. We need to become more sensitive and speak up more about mental health.
What made a sportswoman turn to films?
Sport is my first love. And first love is always special. I have been into sports since I was 7-8 years old. I ended up playing 11 sports for St Xaviers. But it was in college that I started doing theatre and the acting bug bit me. I realised at 16 that if I wasn’t playing for India it wasn’t a career I could pursue. And acting happened during the same time. Gradually I realised I loved performing. It was a way to express myself. Eventually I started training in acting and then there was no looking back. Sport is still my backbone. I do hope I get to merge both my passions and do a sports film someday.
Any memory of your grandmother Ushaji you would like to share with us?
I was very young when she passed away. But I remember drawing with sketch pens on her stomach. I remember spending our summer vacations in Bombay with her. She was really funny. She pampered me and my sister. I remember she used to make really nice ghee. I don’t have memories of her as an actress; it was always her as a grandmother. I used to fondly call her Dhamas. (No idea what that is or where it came from). I wish she was around to watch my work now, would have loved her feedback.
What can we expect from you in Breathe 2? You must be aware that after Choked expectations are high from you.
I actually signed and shot for Breathe 2 much before Choked. Breathe 2 is a psychological crime thriller and I really enjoyed the script. So even though my role in Breathe 2 and Special Ops is small, I wanted to be part of both the projects because I liked what I read. All three characters I have gotten to play are different from each other and that’s what is exciting for an actor. I do hope people like my work and the show. Post Choked, all I can hope for is that more makers back me.